The Philadelphia Eagles have a ton of options in the slot.
Before Brandon Brooks’ season ended before it even really began, the Philadelphia Eagles really only had one really question mark on their offense depth chart going into the 2020 NFL season: Slot receiver.
With Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson locked in at the outside, Zach Ertz penciled in at tight end, Miles Sanders and Carson Wentz starting in the backfield, and the PFF’s best offensive line in the league – with Andre Dillard (probably) filling Jason Peters’ shoes – the Eagles really only have to find a long-term replacement for Nelson Agholor deployed out of the slot in three-wide receiver sets.
Which is ironic, because the Birds’ Week 17 slot receiver, Greg Ward, is the only returning starting wideout from last year’s playoff offense.
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So, in theory, Ward should be on the short track to retain his spot going into 2020, right? Maybe so, or he could be on the lookout for a new team come September; frankly, either option feels just as likely.
And honestly, that’s no disrespect to Ward. He worked really, really hard to get where he is, transitioning from a prolific college quarterback to a thrice released developmental receiver, to surprise standout for the San Antonio Commanders of the now-defunct AAF, and made strides as a reliable mid-level option across the middle of the field in his 24-year-old rookie season. That being said, Ward also averaged roughly 36 yards per game, a little over nine yards per catch, and failed to log 50 or more yards in all but two of the games he appeared in last fall.
When two games account for over half of a receivers’ total yards for a year, it’s probably not a good sign.
Was Ward actually an encouraging, ascending slot option in the vein of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, or Wes Welker? Or the best bad receiver out of a crew of historically bad receivers? Well, we won’t have to wait too long to find out, as the Eagles loaded up on some serious talent to give him competition on the interior.
Over the course of draft weekend, Howie Roseman added not one, not two, but four receivers to their already deceptively loaded stable of offensive pass-catchers – highlighted by first-round pick Jalen Reagor, Olympic jumper Marquise Goodwin, and intriguing speedsters John Hightower and Quez Watkins.
Now to be fair, Goodwin was almost exclusively deployed on the outside during his tenure in San Francisco, where his 4.27 speed can take the top off of opposing defenses a la DeSean Jackson, but between Reagor, Hightower, and Watkins, someone has to have what it takes to give Ward a run for his money, right? All three receivers ran faster 40s than Wards’ 4.59, can add a little verticality to the position, and, ya know, actually have more than 500 receiving yards to their credit over their lifetime.
Hightower, Reagor, and Watkins collectively hauled in 45 of their 157 catches in 2019 out of the slot, so in theory, any or all of them could be viable options at the position if Jeffery and Jackson remain entrenched on the outside – that is, if Doug Pederson lets Reagor cross-train in the slot, instead of exclusively lining up as a backup for Jackson on the outside (more on that here).
Sidebar: Why are the Eagles so intent on easing in their rookie receivers at only one position? It clearly didn’t work for JJAW’s initial development, limits a player’s audible optionality, and severely limits a player’s ability to fill another role in an emergency if injuries strike. Do you really think mid-season practice squad signees like Robert Davis and Deontay Burnett were really only tasked with learning one position when the Eagles needed to win out the season to make a playoff berth? I kinda doubt it.
Alternatively, what if the Eagles opt to go big in the slot this fall? From 2013-15 and a few intermittent stretches in 2018 and 2019, the Eagles primarily relied on 6-foot-3, 215 pound Vanderbilt product Jordan Matthews as their go-to interior receiving option across from Ertz. Maybe the Eagles can afford to keep Ward in the slot 40 percent of the time if they go all-in on two tight end formations with Dallas Goedert on the lateral side. Goedert’s 607 yards ranked second on the team last season behind only Ertz and he did so only 770 offensive snaps – 230 fewer than Ertz.
Even still, the Eagles could opt to forgo relying on a single designated slot receiver in 2020 altogether and opt to utilize multiple interior options in a handful of new look, air-raid-esque passing sets. Put Reagor, Goodwin, Jackson, Hightower, and Watkins on the field at the same time and dare opposing defenses to cover that look, right?
Ultimately, how the Philadelphia Eagles decide to tackle their kind of vacant slot receiver position will be one of the more fascinating storylines to follow later this summer, right up there with right guard and weakside linebacker. Whether Ward beats out the odds and develops into a star, one of the team’s four new receivers finds a natural home on the inside, or Doug Pederson commits fully to the ‘Dallas Goedert show’ it’s clear the Eagles’ base-level of talent has risen considerably going into the 2020 NFL season – all but guaranteeing the team doesn’t have to go waiver wire shopping for any pass catcher with a pulse come November.